(If you missed it – here is a link to my look back on Kilimanjaro Day 2)
Day 3 – Morning Paradise
It feels as though it’s been a long time coming but looking back to just 3 months ago, to the day I woke to the most amazing sunrise above the clouds, I can easily recall the surreal scene. It was as if I had been transported to a fantasy world high above the earth, it’s peak surrounded by a dense puff of cloud and it’s inhabitants squinting against the fiery ball of sun rising through the clouds, basking in the warmth it brought.
This image and other spectacular moments are emblazoned on my memory but the complete compilation of day to day activity that brought myself and our group to these fantastic places is somewhat jumbled, the order misaligned in my mind. On reflection, the single days seem to run in to one another making it almost impossible for me to accurately state which event took place on what day. I struggle to recall the order of days even as I look through my photos, thankful that they have been recorded in some semblance of time and place in a week filled with so many amazing experiences. A word to the well intentioned, procrastinating, journal writers out there (me)… “Take notes!” I am thankful for my blogging partner’s discipline with jotting down daily events, experiences, and itineraries, but even as I read her recollections, knowing they are accurate – I still have my doubts, wondering if she has it right. I have to wonder if maybe it’s because only 2% dehydration affects one’s attention, memory, and cognitive skills or if perhaps my brain cells were cannibalizing themselves in an effort to ward off starvation… With the incredible food we were being provided I can’t imagine it was the latter so at this point in time, even knowing that memory is a tricky part of the brain affected by emotion, past experience, and interpretation, I’m going with the dehydration option.
On the morning of day 3 at Kikilewa Camp while our dining table was set in the open air and our bags and tents were packed and portered out, we lingered in the sunshine (and by lingering I mean bandaging my battered heels) and set out late – close to 8:30am! Our trek was reported to be only 3-4 hours today with an acclimatization hike after our arrival at Mawenzi Tarn Camp – I know, sounds like great news! After an hour or so of upward and upward I wasn’t as excited. My excitement waned further as another hour took us and my Darth Vader-like respirations upward yet. By the final hour I was wondering what kind of Tom-foolery I had signed up for. I felt deceived by the morning feast and the easy gathering around a heavenly table for 7 only hours before. What had begun as a lighthearted fellowship enveloped in sunshine and grace had turned into an ongoing slog of one foot over the other in the shadow of Mawenzi peak, surrounded by nothing but the grey rocks and dirt of Kilimanjaro.
Cresting the ridge to Mawenzi Camp was a relief and even the slimy green puddle, the pale green of our tents, and the welcome of our home camp appeared to be a kind of oasis after our colourless morning.
It took only moments before my grey thoughts were lifted. Popcorn, peanuts, and a lovely cup of tea have a way of quickly raising the spirits! A few card games in the dining tent, an amazing lunch, and we were set for a short acclimatization hike. The purpose of these wee treks was to climb temporarily to a higher altitude ensuring that the climb high – sleep low rule was followed so that our bodies had every opportunity available to adjust the altitude and maximize our chances of reaching the summit. The 20 minute rest at the height of the hike was an opportunity for the guides to lay out the plan for the next day and quietly assess each one of us and our physical, mental, and emotional state almost midway through this adventure. The knowledge and intuition of our guides never ceased to amaze me and I noted their keen sense of our team throughout our trek.
During one of our many water breaks, Felix #1 asked me how I was doing. I replied that I was doing well – no headaches, nausea, or shortness of breath (except on the uphill!!!). After confirming again that I was okay, he then questioned why, whenever he looked back, that I walked with my head down and was so quiet. “What are you thinking?” Initially I was shocked that I hadn’t noticed him looking back at us while he was in the lead – I had been behind him directly or at least 2nd in line for the last couple of days! Secondly, for him to note my style of gait, and my quiet character surprised me. For those who know me, they can imagine my discomfort at the beginning of this trek, despite being with one of my best friends, being smack dab in the middle of a group of 7 who I had met only a couple of times before – I mean, I’m basically a hermit! My response was that I was in fact doing okay. I was quiet because in the day to day busyness of life there isn’t much time for quiet contemplation and that I was only thinking one thing while on the uphill, “One more step, one more step.” He laughed at this and told me the next time he asks how I’m doing, if I feel as good as I do today, that I should reply, “Ajabu,” which means fantastic. I believe that each one of us had at least one encounter like this with at least one of the guides as they observed and endeavored to learn more about each one of us, our physical state, and our well-being whenever the opportunity came about.
The day 3 acclimatization hike had served it’s purpose and after we settled in for an amazing supper I was satiated and sleepy. We all went our separate ways, snuggled into our tents for the night, and while I can’t speak for anyone else, the supposed theory of the difficulty of sleeping at altitude had thus far been disproven and remained merely a myth. I slept like a rock! I was looking forward to a day crossing “The Saddle,” which I had read was dry and hot, where the sun scorched and burned anyone who dared not cover their head. Oh yes, after the chilly, grey afternoon/evening of the third day, I was already dreaming of the desert tundra of day 4 in all of it’s warmth and glory!
Day 4 – A Change of Plan
During our acclimatization hike on Day 3, the guides suggested an alternate route that would shave several kilometres off of our trek and allow our group a greater chance of successfully reaching the summit. As it turns out, we voted unanimously in favour of the alternate route albeit for each one of us, the reason was different. We would now attempt to summit on day five, leaving in the daylight rather than making an overnight attempt. This new route would also involve us skipping the original stop at Third Caves Camp and making our way directly to School Huts Camp (4800m) one day early. I was greatly in favour of this part of the plan because it meant that we could stay in the same camp for two consecutive days and I wouldn’t have to tidy or pack anything before our 5am attempt at the summit!
Breakfast was early and by 7am we were already into the second course. This morning’s porridge was something new however, it was made from millet. Hmmm… not sure if I was a big fan of this change because of the taste or because at some point on day 3 my stomach had started to give me a bit of trouble. No nausea, no diarrhea, nor any acclimatization flatulence to speak of (my tent-mate was probably grateful for that!), just dull, continuous, epigastric pain that could not be relieved. Weird, but I was not going to be deterred from what I knew was going to be a fantastic day. With heels bandaged and taped, boots strategically tied, and my sunscreen at the ready, we set out for The Saddle. Up, up, and up we went, each time reaching a small summit then being rewarded with a small downhill section of trail. Finally, when we reached the peak and gazed over the edge, we could not only see the trail we would take across the saddle, but the path beyond leading onto the mountain, it’s solitary form rising up in the distance. Kilimanjaro – our final destination.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we descended into The Saddle. The azure blue overhead extended across the horizon and in every direction as far as we could see. The warmth of the sun was in direct opposition to the coolness of the high altitude breeze in the way that you could feel the shining rays on your face but when you touched your skin it was cold. Oh, there is something amazing about the sunshine and how it can transform the way you feel. Well, the way I feel anyway. I felt as if I could walk all day with our easy pace along a slow and barely perceptible incline… Now this was the hike I had dreamed about and the day that I most fondly look back on. The pace increased slightly as we excitedly began our cross country trek. Nothing but open space in front of us, our goal in sight every step of the way. After an hour I think our pace had slowed… It felt as though we had not made any gain at all. I think each one of us was marking rocks or breaks in the trail to ensure we were actually moving forward as the distance did not seem to close in any measurable way at all. I found that it was only when I looked back from where we had come that I realized the distance we had covered, the progress we had made. Life is a bit like that too, I think. Sometimes we have to look back to see how far we have come. So looking forward, there seemed no end but I didn’t care at all – the blue of the sky, the brightness of the sun, the freedom in my spirit, and the beauty of this place were like something one reads about only in books.
The easy pace of this day kept my abdominal pain at bay but the ache returned on the evening acclimatization hike and had me wondering if my breathing pattern was to blame. In medicine, when you are bagging a patient you don’t want to fill their tummy with air by pushing too much volume too fast. I thought maybe I was gulping air while trying to take deeper breaths in an attempt to get more oxygen at this altitude. I wasn’t able to eat anything really but it was due to pain more than anything else. Again, I was not nauseated, had no vomiting or diarrhea, did not have a headache, and thankfully, was not experiencing the dreaded acclimatization flatulence. I went to the tent earlier that afternoon for a rest but no luck. Thankfully, the Rolaids that Brande had given me had provided momentary relief. My nursing mind was trying to come up with answers but nothing seemed to fit.
The night chill came early and it was freezing in the dining tent. I was cold and uncomfortable, and not really myself so I was off to bed soon after our briefing. It was decided we would wake up at 4am, leave at 5am, and summit around mid-day. I tried to be excited as I took out all of the clothes I would need and put them in the inner part of our tent… It was freezing up here and I knew I wouldn’t want to put on cold clothes at 4am!! It had started to rain/snow and I wasn’t looking forward to the morning but imagine my surprise when I unzipped the tent to make my way to the toilet and a sheet of ice shattered and slid off the roof! Nightmare! Not only did the noise wake up Matty, I thought I would be slip-sliding all the way to the summit! By the time we woke up for real, there was only a light dusting of snow on the ground and thankfully, no evidence of the aforementioned ice storm. It was time to start day 5 – Kilimanjaro Summit day.